I have been sick since March. It started with an infection that has lead to three surgeries, with at least one more on the way. I found out I would be needing those surgeries on the same day that I found out we would not be getting the house we’d been under contract on for five months. The house for which we had packed our belongings and listed our home.
It also happened to be the same day that I found out I was being summoned for jury duty.
It’s been that kind of year.
I didn’t know what it was like to have chronic pain and discomfort until I had chronic pain and discomfort. I’m used to being sick until I’m not, taking time off of work or activities if necessary, stopping for a few days, and then resuming normality.
The problem with chronic pain is that there comes a time after which you have to resume normality without feeling normal.
It’s been that kind of year.
If I don’t think about it, then it’s easy to pretend that everything is alright. But then I catch myself sitting in front of the refrigerator, cutting off slices of cheese to eat, one after the other. Or sitting at my computer, clicking “buy” before the alarm in my head goes off to remind me that I don’t really have the money to spend. Because eating and spending are a really good distraction to feeling.
And the key to pain management is making it possible to stop feeling pain.
Two months ago I got a message in my inbox from a friend, telling me that she was sending me a t-shirt that said, “Strong Woman”. There have been a lot of moments in my life when those words would have resonated deeply within me. Like immediately after running my first ten-miler, or the moment my son’s perfect slippery body was laid on my chest after a day and a half of labor.
But it hasn’t been that kind of year.
Last week, on the same day, three of my friends reached out to me to check to see how I was doing. I didn’t know, until I knew, just how much I would crave this sort of help, while at the same time avoiding it because where do you start? If I think about what I need, it starts pulling the yarn until the whole sweater of need is unraveled, and I’m not prepared for that level of nakedness, and I’m not good at knitting.
But to avoid becoming a hermit, and to honor two of the friends I truly care about, I went to a going away party last weekend. Many of my dearest friends were there, and I found myself sitting at a table with a fellow mom, one I’m still getting to know, but whose honesty I’ve appreciated. Her daughter is enough older than my son that she has good insights, but not too much older that she can’t remember. We started talking about potty training, and the diapers that leak in the middle of the night all over the bed.
She offered an idea of solving the problem, but I think she could tell right away that I was not in the mood. Maybe she could see the holes forming in my sweater. So she said, “But you’ll know when it’s the right time for you to make a change.”
It was so little, but it was also grace. Permission to not have to solve the problem. Permission to have this be hard. Permission to be needy. Permission to know when to heal.
And a reminder that this is just a moment in time.
What my friend didn’t know when she sent me my Strong Woman t-shirt is that it would arrive two days before my third surgery. I woke up the morning of the surgery and pulled the shirt over my head. It’s the kind of shirt people notice, and several strangers read the words aloud as I walked past them in the hospital. I didn’t know why I wanted to wear the shirt that day, only that it was necessary.
Two months later, looking back, I think I wore it as a reminder. A reminder that it has been that kind of year. I have been sick, I have been in pain. I feel needy and I feel weak.
But none of those things tells me who I am. Who I am is a strong woman.
A strong woman with a beautiful, messy sweater of need.
A strong woman who, when it is the right time, will heal.